Probiotics: The Beneficial Bacteria

What are probiotics?

One widely used definition, developed by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is that probiotics are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Put simply, probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (micro flora) in the intestines. The normal human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic (beneficial) bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system. Interest in probiotics has been growing with Americans’ spending on probiotic supplements tripling from 1994 to 2003.

Where can you find probiotics?

The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt, is the best known. Other foods containing probiotics are yeast, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages. In probiotic foods, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation. Probiotics are also available in dietary supplements in the form of capsules, tablets, and powders.

What are the health benefits of probiotics?

Beneficial bacteria are vital to the proper development of the immune system and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. We all need a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. However, this bacterial balancing act can easily be thrown off.

The use of antibiotics is a major culprit because it kills off the gut’s good bacteria along with the bad bacteria that caused the illness. This decrease in beneficial bacteria can lead to annoying side effects like gas and diarrhea. Probiotics can help restore that balance. Probiotics can also be used to ease the gastrointestinal symptoms associated with lactose intolerance — a condition in which the gut lacks the enzyme needed to digest the sugar in milk.

A decrease in beneficial bacteria may also lead to other infections, such as vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections, and symptoms such as diarrhea from intestinal illnesses.

What conditions have been known to improve with probiotic use?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Studies have shown that the use of probiotics can reduce the pain experienced by IBS sufferers. Probiotics help to restore the balance between the good and bad bacteria, thus maintaining a healthy digestive tract.

Lactose Intolerance: Taking probiotics in supplement form can relieve symptoms of excessive lactose. Probiotics help to line the intestinal wall and prevent lactose indigestion.

Nutrient Absorption: The intake of probiotics may help to improve the absorption of nutrients and minerals like calcium, vitamin B, Zinc and Iron.

High Cholesterol: Probiotics have an effect on lowering cholesterol levels by inhibiting the absorption of bile into the bloodstream as cholesterol.

Colon Cancer: Probiotics help to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and colon, thus reducing the risk of colon cancer.

Immune System Disorders: By regulating and strengthening the antibodies in our body, probiotics may improve our immunity against infections.

Harmful bacteria: When using probiotic supplements, there are fewer chances of bad bacteria growth when one is under stress.

Eczema in Children: There appears to be a correlation between children who suffer from eczema and an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Probiotic bacteria can help ease or, in some cases, even get rid of eczema in children.

Yeast Infection: Probiotic bacteria help women to maintain healthy vaginal flora and reduce the occurrence of yeast infections.

Constipation: By reducing intestinal passing time in the gut, probiotics helps to relieve constipation, especially among elderly.

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